iPray iDaven iRobot

If you're looking for a good podcast, I LOVE LOVE LOVE Radio Lab. I was listening to the episode "The Clockwork Miracle," recently and it was--in a roundabout way--about mechanical prayer.  The legend concerns King Philip II who in 1562 prayed to G-d to heal his son who had suffered a terrible fall.  As part of his prayer, he said that if G-d provided a miracle and healed his son, that he, King Philip, would provide a miracle for G-d.  I know this is an odd thing for a human to say to G-d, but this is how the legend goes.

You can listen to the podcast to hear the full story, but after the miraculous healing of his son, King Philip needed a miracle.  He commissioned a clockmaker to create a mechanical version of holy priest who had been dead for 100 years. The clockmaker created a fifteen inch high figure of a monk which could be wound up and would walk, turn his head, open and close his mouth, and raise and lower one arm holding a cross while his other beat his chest--a symbolic gesture called a mea culpa. Then the hand holding the cross would bring it to its mouth and kiss it.  It would then repeat this walking around and the same motions again and again. 

But why would King Philip make an automatic doll to fulfill his promise to G-d?  Producer and Director of Research Latif Nasser suggests the following (this is a rough transcription of his explanation interspersed with comments from guest Dr. Elizabeth King, and creator and host Jad Abumrad).  As you read this, think about Jewish parallels, please.

This was a machine which was built to pray. And this was a period when you could buy prayer repetition, so if you had money, you could get someone to pray for you while you go do something else..... This robot was maybe the best Catholic you could ever hope to be. What counted as prayer was quite specific. If you say the right things and do the right actions in the right order in the right time in the right place--that's prayer--that's when G-d notices..... It is in fact, perfect--it repeats itself over and over, and it replicates the ideal. Basically it's a little teaching object: "This is the perfect prayer." This is doing it the perfect way every time. And I--because I'm just this lowly imperfect human, I can only aspire to perfect piety..... 

They go on to explain that this was during Counter-Reformation Spain, not so long after Luther's ideas became popular.  At the time, there was disagreement about how you get closer to G-d.  Followers of Luther said that it's about whether you feel your prayer or not.  The Catholic argument said that particular rituals are the way you get close to G-d.  As Philip was a Catholic King, this was his way of thanking G-d.

It is, actually, a Jewish idea to pay someone else to pray for you as was done in medieval Catholic Spain.  In an article called "Pay to Pray" by Tamar Fox in Tablet Magazine, she explains that there are numerous Jewish websites that will allow you to pay for others to pray for your safety in travel or finding your bashert.  Personally, I cannot imagine asking someone to pray instead of me.  When I do ask others to pray in addition to me it's generally people I know who I feel can have the proper intention during their prayer.  Along those lines, Fox quotes Rabbi Harold Kushner from his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People in wording that is uncannily similar to that of the podcast about Catholic tradition:

In his 1981 book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of a stranger calling him very late at night to ask that a prayer be said for his mother, who was having surgery the next morning.“Do I—and does the man who called me—really believe in a God who has the power to cure malignancies and influence the outcome of surgery, and will do that only if the right person recites the right words in the right language?” Kushner writes. “And will God let a person die because a stranger, praying on her behalf, got some of the words wrong?” Is my own prayer for good health less compelling to God than if the same prayer is offered by a Torah scholar at the Western Wall?

Despite Rabbi Kushner's protests of its efficacy, it is (for better or for worse) a longstanding Jewish custom to ask others to pray instead of you--at least in the case of the Mourner's Kaddish.  An article on the chabad.org website explains that:

In the absence of a son, or a personal reliable substitute, Jewish families, traditionally, have paid a sexton or another synagogue functionary to say the Kaddish. They felt that it was better to pay for this service, than to receive it free, as they were then able to consider the agent a personal emissary, and were, thus, assured of its recitation. The person who is thus engaged should not, by right, be saying the Kaddish for many others, as it will then lose all personal bearing to the deceased.

On another page, in case you are wondering, you can pay online:
Please choose a plan:
First Year Kaddish Observance: $180.00 (USD)
Recital of Kaddish and Mishnayos everyday for the first year (11 months)Annual Kaddish Observance: $180.00 (USD)
Recital of Kaddish and Mishnayos each year on the date of YahrzeitFirst Year and Annual Kaddish Observance: $320.00 (USD)
Recital of Kaddish and Mishnayos everyday for the first year, and perpetual recital of Kaddish and Mishnayos each year on the date of Yahrzeit

While I do understand that having others pray for you is a long standing Jewish custom, I'm cautious to encourage this.  The efficacy of prayer on the person being prayed for has been studied and reported on in many scientific journals with mixed results, but without question the person doing the praying derives spiritual benefit from the prayer.  When we truly pray, we increase our own humility, gratitude, and faith.  And these are benefits that we simply can't receive when we assign our prayer to a robot or to another human for that matter.  If and when an "iDavener" gets invented, I'll take a pass.  I prefer my prayers the old fashioned way.

To end on a funny note:  As for saying the "right words at the right time in the right way," I invite you to enjoy this parody video of yeshiva bochurs who are praying.  Many of them seem very focused on their prayers.  But many of them are so distracted that they forget whether it's a weekday or a Shabbat, a Rosh Chodesh or a regular day, and skip or add prayers by mistake.  It's a little silly, but if you fast forward to the end and watch the "five second Aleynu guy," you'll see an example of how not to pray.  Enjoy.

To listen to the podcast "A Clockwork Miracle," click below.